Does free will exist?

Or are human lives determined by outside factors?

Plutarch Parallel Lives
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Parallel Lives (Selections)

Caesar is a truly compelling character, whose career brought Rome almost to the pinnacle of its power, but also brought about the end of the republic and the beginning of empire. Through the prism of his story, students can consider a variety of questions about power, ambition, various forms of government, and the relationship of people and their leaders, that bear upon our current political situation. The narrative draws students in more effectively than most more abstract philosophical consideration of such issues, while the historical distance can also allow a more thoughtful consideration and exchange of views around these issues than may be possible when discussing the contemporary situation more directly.

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Augustine's Confessions
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Confessions

Although much of the narrative of the Confessions happens during Augustine’s time in Italy, this book, so undeniably central to the western canon, is by a writer who was born, grew up, and spent the majority of his career in, Africa. Thus it challenges our conception of where such books originate and our preconceptions about the people who wrote them. It is often called the first autobiography, and presents a remarkable exploration of interiority – questions about the nature of the self, the will, the memory, the intellect, and the soul are central to Augustine’s investigations. Some students are immediately drawn to the beauty of the book as a work of literature, and to the intense self-examination it models.

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Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Dover Thrift Edition
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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

“Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl” addresses the particular issues of being a woman and a slave. Few slave narratives focus on these specific details. Jacobs is writing early Black feminism and bringing the question of Black female empowerment into the feminist conversation that won’t really accept it for quite some time.

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Federalist Papers
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The Federalist Papers

The arguments of Publius are alive today. In 1821, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote of The Federalist Papers, “It is a complete commentary on our constitution; and is appealed to by all parties in the questions to which that instrument has given birth. Its intrinsic merit entitles it to this high rank, and the part two of its authors [i.e., Hamilton and Madison] performed in framing the constitution, put it very much in their power to explain the views with which it was framed.” This view has not waned. The Federalist Papers continue to be cited in US Supreme Court cases as the authoritative interpretation on the original intent of the US Constitution as well as in thousands of law review articles and cases of the lower courts.

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Changes: A Love Story Ama Ata Aidoo
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Changes: A Love Story

This is a story about modern African women and their frustration at the status quo where women’s rights are concerned. At the heart of the story is Esi, an educated woman, unhappily married woman, and mother. Esi has a good job that provides the bungalow she and her husband Oko live in with their daughter. After Oko rapes Esi in a desperate attempt to remind her of her place, she divorces him and sends her child to live with his mother, essentially freeing herself from the traditional gender roles.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”
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Letter From a Birmingham Jail

In addition to its transformative impact on the civil rights movement, King’s speech also grapples with a timeless human question: is it just to disobey an unjust law? How do you overcome and end oppression? What in fact is the difference between a just and an unjust law? Is it wrong to fight for what is right if you know it will lead to violence?

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Euripides, Medea
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Medea

This is a short, riveting text that takes students directly to topics about human nature in extremity – questions of passion, the relationship between love and hatred, justice and the most severe vengeance extending even to children. It is almost impossible not to react strongly. It is helpful in the classroom that that the beautiful but challenging poetic language and the stylized, unfamiliar character of ancient Greek drama provide enough distance for students to be able to be able to examine the most violent emotions and actions, creating the opportunity for compelling discussion.

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Dubliners, Vintage Classics, New York
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Dubliners

These stories can introduce students to the Joycean epiphany, the moment at the end of the stories when a profound truth gets revealed to the characters. At the end of “A Painful Case,” Mr. Duffy “felt that he was alone.” The boy in “Araby” says, “I saw myself a creature driven and derided by vanity.” The boy’s realization is not so different from Jimmy Doyle’s realization of his “folly” at the end of “After the Race,” Little Chandler’s shame and remorse at the end of “A Little Cloud” as he sees the hatred in his wife’s eyes and understands his ineptitude in the domestic life he has chosen over his art, or even Gabriel Conroy’s in “The Dead” seeing himself as “a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous wellmeaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.”

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The Odyssey Homer
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Odyssey

Discussing The Odyssey is a productive way to begin an undergraduate education. Many first-year students see themselves in Telemachus, who is struggling to find his identity and to establish himself in the world as an independent person, worthy of respect and happiness. This text helps frame the transformative experience of beginning college through a narrative following the personal transformations of many characters. The text productivity raises questions about the conflict between safety and freedom, desire and devotion and helps students weigh their competing priorities as they begin their college journey.

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Clark, Sandra, and Pamela Mason, eds. Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Arden Shakespeare, 3rd series. Bloomsbury, 2015
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Macbeth

Does Macbeth kill Duncan because he is fated to do so, or because he was tempted to do so? Would he have killed Duncan of his own free will without the influence of others? Why do people commit acts that they know are wrong, even when they understand the consequences of these actions? Unlocking such questions for students allows them to engage with some of the central questions about human agency, desire for self-worth and achievement, and the dark, unknowable impulses of all people.

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Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, Vintage Books, New York
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Sappho

Using Sappho is a way to bring into the classroom themes around beauty, longing, loss and subjectivity. There are a number of ways to approach this text. One way would be to situate students in the middle of the fragmentation and rupture within the poems, as described above, in order to think through the jagged and jarring structure of the text, the ways of not knowing who a speaker is, and the silences that are in many ways louder than the actual words on the page.

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Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals
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Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals

Kant is notoriously difficult to read and, although it was intended for a more general audience than some of his other works, the Grounding is no exception. Still, the overall goal – to find one, single principle that can be a key to deciding questions of morality – is one that students find relatable. Who hasn’t struggled to find clarity, or wished for a principle about which we could all agree, when considering issues of right and wrong?

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Mama Day Gloria Naylor
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Mama Day

Mama Day explores the concept of home in multiple ways, and in ways that the reader may not be expecting. This novel unlocks the way we think about home, and then forces us to transcend those beliefs. It is also a novel about faith and the life-altering effects faith of any kind can have on our lives. This novel makes readers question the very definition of faith and what true faith can accomplish.

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Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Dover Thrift, ed.
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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is the story of humanity. One goal of the slave narrative was to assert the African’s humanity. Douglass’ narrative addresses the important question what it means to be human and who gets to decide that for anybody. This text is a way to get students talking not just about the history of slavery, but about the importance of education, and self-awareness.

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LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA
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Love in The Time of Cholera

This novel is about Love and all its itinerant forms. Unrequited love. Platonic love. Romantic Love. Parental love. Forbidden love. It is about obsession and rejection. It is about the enduring nature of love and of hope. It asks difficult questions about what love is and who is entitled to it. No one walks away from this text not thinking that love is complex and nuanced and dangerous. Marquez presents love as an illness, with many of the same symptoms of Cholera. And the way the characters compartmentalize who they love and the way they love requires that your understanding of the text transcend traditional considerations of what love is.

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